Preserving the Japanese-American Internment Camps

A report from the National Park Service should help efforts to save what's left of the WWII camps.

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Offerings hang on the barded wire fence surrounding the cemetery of the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California, which served as an internment camp during World War II.

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Just over two months after Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt made what many consider his worst decision as president. On Feb. 19, 1942, in between two orders regulating highways and transferring war agency personnel, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the forcible removal of all Japanese-Americans from the Pacific coast. With worries about a Japanese invasion at their peak, the decision was justified on the grounds of military necessity. Nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, the vast majority of them born in the U.S., were told to leave their homes. They were sent by train and by truck to 10 remote internment camps across the West. Roosevelt ordered the Secretary of War to provide them with food and shelter. Then he turned to other matters.

When the war ended, after almost four years of living under armed guard, the internees were released. The long rows of barracks and mess halls—one site in Colorado had become the tenth-largest city in the state—were torn down for scrap. Survivors and government officials alike got down to the business of not talking about what had happened. For more than 60 years, many of the sites, abandoned buildings on remote, government-owned land, were largely, sometimes willfully, forgotten.

Before the end of the month, the National Park Service will deliver a report to Congress that could begin to bring the internment camps out of the shadows. In 2006, President Bush signed a bill authorizing up to $38 million for a grant program devoted to the preservation of the 10 camps, along with dozens of smaller-scale confinement sites—the first major federal effort at preserving the entire, sprawling internment system.

Only two of the camps are dedicated national historic sites, protected and administered by the National Park Service. The rest have been given only honorary designations as historical landmarks. Park service historians spent the fall conducting a listening tour in 19 cities across the country, getting ideas about how the program should be organized and administered. Their report will provide the basis for a united, federal preservation program, which will be able to award grants for everything from oral history projects to physical reconstruction of camp buildings.

"These sites are continuing to deteriorate," says Kara Miyagishima, a park service historian who helped write the report. After years of grassroots efforts to right the wrongs done to internees, she says, the time has come to preserve what remains of the internment sites. "The internees themselves, the people who have firsthand experience of it, are getting older," says Miyagishima. "It's urgent to try to preserve the sites and their stories."

But as the park service prepares to deliver its report, funds for the preservation effort have yet to be appropriated. The Bush administration didn't mention the program in its budget this month, worrying some preservation advocates. "We're not sure if it was a conscious decision or something that just didn't make the cut," says Tom Leatherman, the superintendent of the Manzanar National Historic Site, a camp in eastern California. "I know the community we've been working with is concerned." Once the report is delivered, all eyes will turn to Congress, which will be haggling over budget appropriations for much of the summer. The preservation program, meanwhile, will be waiting for the green light. "I can tell you right now, we're ready to implement this program," says Leatherman.

On the face of it, preservation of the internment camps would seem to be a political no-brainer. Every president since Nixon has publicly disavowed the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Gerald Ford rescinded Roosevelt's executive order. Jimmy Carter signed legislation that concluded the order was "not justified by military necessity." Ronald Reagan said internment was "wrong," and signed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, which granted reparations to survivors. George H.W. Bush acknowledged "serious injustices" done to Japanese-Americans, and arranged for redress payments, as well. Bill Clinton did the same.